As important political events, are conventions a thing of the past?
by Felicity Spector MPA 2000
Hoopla, intrigue and excitement. To the glitterati who attend them and cover them, they are not just a giant carnival, but one of the defining events of American politics. A chance for party activists from across the United States to come together once every four years and rally behind their nominee for the highest office in the land. A chance for the American public to form their own judgement about presidential candidates and their ideas. A chance for television's brightest stars to indulge in endless speculation about the White House race.
"There are not many things we do together as a nation besides choosing a president. It is a vital shared experience," says adjunct lecturer Maxine Isaacs, who ran Walter Mondale's campaign in 1984.
"They are the virtual party made flesh and blood," according to Michael Waldman, 1999 IOP fellow, who served as President Clinton's chief speechwriter for five years.
Yet to their critics, political conventions belong to the dinosaur age. Robbed of any real significance, they have become so tightly scripted even the commercial breaks are built in. They are roundly condemned as all show and no substance, a week-long photo opportunity filled with scenes of delegates waving flags, wearing silly hats, and smiling for the cameras, right on cue.
This is why in the year 2000, despite millions of dollars, and thousands of staff, and years of intricate planning in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the broadcast networks could barely be bothered to turn up. Tune in during prime time and if you were lucky, you might have caught an acceptance speech: any chance of more considered coverage was over the minute Ted Koppel walked out of the 1996 Republican jamboree declaring, "Nothing surprising has happened. Nothing surprising is anticipated." Naturally, the parties, terrified of losing their only chance of free airtime, have hit back. They've accused the networks of arrogance, and of abrogating their civic responsibility to give the public the information they need to decide which way to vote.
So what's gone wrong? Thirty-five thousand of the nation's best and brightest gathered in one vast room, and there's really nothing interesting expected? Perhaps the decline of the convention is a sign of the wider malaise afflicting American politics, from falling turnout to the media's obsession with scandal and sleaze.
All Passion Spent
Ironically, the very first conventions were called more than 160 years ago to take political decisionmaking out of the hands of the elites in their smoke-filled rooms, and hand it back to the people. Before the corrupting influence of broadcast news, they were occasions for true passion and drama. There were tumultuous platform fights over slavery, war, civil rights, and the economy. Entire delegations stormed out in fierce battles over their voting credentials. It used to take dozens of ballots to decide the nominee; in 1924, the Democrats held more than a 100. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first candidate to actually accept the nomination in person until then, the winner used to learn of his success days later, when a special committee deigned to visit him at home.
Roosevelt's appearance gave birth to another piece of political tradition: the acceptance speech the first real chance for a presidential candidate to demonstrate his leadership qualities and his ideas. Waldman rode on Bill Clinton's train to the Democratic convention in 1996, writing en route the famous "Bridge to the 21st Century" speech. As he recalls, he was initially intimidated by the fact that the Republicans had recruited a well-known novelist, Mark Halpern, to pen the words of Bob Dole. Then he breathed a sigh of relief when the septuagenarian Dole depicted himself as a bridge to the past. For Waldman, such speeches are a crucial part of American political tradition, combining a number of key functions.
"It is a combination of a political rallying cry for the party faithful, a broad message to the voting public, and a showcase for the candidate's strengths. It's one of the few times that real oratory is expected in this very cool, low-key, ironic age; a time when speakers are allowed to really let it rip."
Live and Kicking
Amid all the rhetoric, the flag waving, and the knife-edge suspense, it would only be a matter of time before television news jumped on the bandwagon. In 1952, the conventions became the first major television attractions seen live, coast to coast. The media executives realized they could cover the events like a giant football game, complete with crowd scenes and ball-by-ball commentary. The public loved the novelty, and tens of millions stayed glued to their sets. In the presence of cameras, party leaders were forced to throw open the last of their closed doors. The "gavel-to-gavel" coverage was not only a celebration of democracy, but a key ingredient in the process. It helped to secure the people's right to know.
Some of the most memorable moments in American history have now seared themselves into the public mind. In 1960, a youthful John F. Kennedy addressed 80,000 people in a hastily filled stadium in Los Angeles, inviting them to journey with him to the "New Frontier." In 1968, the Democrats were besieged in Chicago, the events inside the hall completely overshadowed by the bloody riots and police violence outside. In 1972, in contrast with the Republicans' obsessive preplanning, the doomed George McGovern was forced to deliver his acceptance speech at 3 a.m. Such drama was not confined to the realm of politics: Gore Vidal's play, "The Best Man," vividly revealed the internecine struggles and petty betrayals that took place behind the scenes.
In recent memory, Isaacs remembers the intensity of Jimmy Carter's battles with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy over the nomination and economic policy and the electric feeling in the hall four years later as the party named a female vice presidential nominee.
"When Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro IOP 1988 stood with their arms in the air together, it was very emotional," she said. "People were crying to see a woman up there."
Yet the conventions were no longer the powerhouses that they began as. Since that first TV convention in 1952, all the real decision-making power has shifted irrevocably to the primaries, settling the ticket well in advance. At the same time, the political parties began to fear the damaging effect that a public show of conflict and division might have on their fortunes in the fall. The media consultants were called in to advise party leaders on everything from the design of the podium to the color of their suits.
A certain innocence was lost forever when, in 1972, a leaked document written by the Republicans' communications staff fell into the hands of CBS: it planned out each minute, to obtain the best possible TV coverage, even making time for "spontaneous applause." At the time, this was an astonishing faux pas. The GOP convention planners admitted they'd designed the whole spectacle to showcase Nixon as "a man who was able to control his own destiny and therefore the destiny of the country." In such a stage-managed production, there was no room for any sign of disunity, for that might spell disaster and electoral defeat.
Those planners were trying to second-guess the TV producers: their successors have perfected the art with epic films about the candidate's life, comprehensively vetted speeches and choreographed images with absolutely no sign of any controversy whatsoever. Dan Fenn, a senior political figure whose experience dates back to the Kennedy White House, believes the obsession with imagemaking was entirely natural. "It's one of those moments in the election process when the voter pays some attention. Like any advertising show, the parties want to put the best face on their candidate that they can."
Far from pleasing the media however, it actively repelled those who still considered themselves bastions of a free press. "I feel slightly soiled," said ABC's Peter Jennings. The response from CBS was, "We are not in the infomercial business."
After 30 years of spin doctoring, things seem to have gone horribly wrong. As Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post put it, "It is the political convention as television miniseries, a postmodern attempt to transform the windy oratory of the past into bite-sized morsels digestible by an audience of channel surfers." Isaacs believes that the mistake came from applying news values to an event that was never supposed to make hourly headlines.
"It grows out of a misunderstanding of the public's relationship to national politics," she says. "The press makes a series of judgements about drama, conflict, and so-on, consistent with their profession, and the politicians trust that judgement too much. They all sort of conspire to trivialize a process which the public takes very seriously."
In place of real political debate, the parties now serve up Elizabeth Dole masquerading as Oprah, Christopher Reeve, and "The Man from Hope." This is despite the fact that all the evidence shows that far from attracting the viewers, it has them lunging for their remote controls. And so, in an age where every ratings point means millions of dollars worth of advertising revenue, the conventions can no longer expect four nights of prime time coverage. The 1996 convention was decreed so boring that for the 2000 conventions, a handful of correspondents hosted a few hours of highlights.
To the Kennedy School's Tom Patterson, the national interest needs protecting. "The networks are grazing on public land here," he says. "The licenses they have are extremely valuable, and they pay next to nothing for them. The conventions are important political institutions, and it's not unreasonable to expect the networks to cover them once every four years." He suggests that there is still room for both sides to agree on some kind of radical reform, possibly handing over two nights of coverage for each party to showcase whatever it wanted.
Patterson also believes it's time to overhaul the entire nominating process, which crams the primary season into a few unrepresentative contests in the winter, with the result decided in the first week of March. That might hold out the possibility of restoring some decision-making powers to the convention, making it a truly significant part of the electoral process again.
Fenn, who teaches in the Kennedy School's Executive Programs, has more than a little nostalgia for the old ways, when tried and tested party activists decided who their candidate should be. "You get more representative and better candidates out of a system where people in the business play a larger role than interest groups or casual voters.... Perhaps I am just being romantic, but at least the party leadership makes a conscious decision, based on a mixture of 'can he win and can he govern?'" Primaries may produce a nominee tested in the heat of electoral battle, not necessarily one best fitted to the task of running the country, rather than just a campaign.
However, given that the present rules are here to stay and it is the conventions that are struggling for breath, they might look to the new media for their salvation. CNN is determined to fill the gap vacated by the traditional news programs: it proudly proclaims its ambition to become the "network of record for the 2000 campaign."
"This is a chance to remember that we are a democracy," CNN's chief political anchor Judy Woodruff says, "to find out what we believe in, what the parties are, where they come from, and what they want to do."
There are new models of participation and engagement springing up every day in cyberspace from the news stations online, to political information sites, and even the parties themselves. The Democrats' all-singing, all-dancing Web site offers a wealth of information and community outreach projects, and promises participants around the country the chance to become involved in a massive e-convention.
Perhaps there is hope for the survival of this single moment every four years when party politics becomes a concrete reality. "These are not small events," says Patterson. "They should be treated as something large and important."
Waldman agrees. "It would be a terrible shame if we can't find a way to keep the conventions vital and relevant....There is an untapped yearning out there for real substance. Whichever broadcasters figure that out will discover a real bonanza."
There's a reason why Los Angeles and Philadelphia were desperate to host this year's political extravaganzas: money. Hosting a convention is worth up to $130 million dollars in extra income. The tens of thousands who gathered there this summer still had a great deal of fun. They crowded the hotel bars to drink beer and California wine and debated late into the night. They leapt to their feet for standing ovations and kidded themselves that their opinions really did matter. All of which goes to show that even if you take the politics out of the parties, you'll never take the party out of politics.
Felicity Spector MPA 2000 is deputy programme editor of Channel 4 News in London.